The number of children in Sonoma County who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year has skyrocketed nearly 70 percent in the past decade, but how to reach those same kids during the summer remains a quandary to groups trying to feed the county's poorest children.
To meet the need over the summer, the Redwood Empire Food Bank, along with Santa Rosa City Schools, Healdsburg City Schools, the Boys & Girls Club and others have teamed up to provide a hot lunchtime meal to any child younger than 18 at sites across the county. The food bank's program began in 2004 with 15,000 meals served but this summer is expected to provide more than 110,000 meals.
"Those are big numbers for us, but we are still not even close to reaching the need," said Gail Atkins, program coordinator for the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
Despite outreach efforts, including emails sent from school officials, radio and newspaper ads in both Spanish and English and signs, only about 10 percent of the kids who qualify during the school year will actually be served by the summer program, backers have said.
Organizers have for years located food distribution sites at schools or in neighborhood parks where a high percentage of students are considered poor. Families of four that earn less than $43,500 annually qualify for reduced-priced lunches.
Hot meals are also distributed Monday through Friday at established times in parks, apartment complexes and summer camps, mostly by volunteers.
Unlike the school year program, no identification or proof of income is required and no questions are asked, but recipients must be younger than 18.
"They are in neighborhoods where most of the people qualify (for free or reduced lunch)," said Atkins of the 45 food bank-sponsored sites across the county. "We scattered them all over Sonoma County in pockets of poverty."
"It's totally open. That is the beauty of the summer program.," Atkins said.
Linda Gonzalez of Davis does not qualify as low income under the federal guidelines but when she is in Rohnert Park visiting her mother, she brings her three sons to the park for an occasional free, hot lunch.
"I asked last year if you have to be low income or is everybody welcome and they said 'Everybody is welcome,'" she said.
But for Alicia Villalobos, who brought six children — her own as well as a friend's — to a lunch this week in Rohnert Park, the offering is helpful for the family's finances. Her children use the free and reduced lunch program during the school year, she said.
And she praised the menu as healthy as children played on the monkey bars behind her.
"We make it an afternoon," she said.
The vast majority of the meals are made in Santa Rosa City Schools' central kitchen, where 20 employees put together salads, pastas, fruit — and one day a week, a cookie or bag of chips.
Supporters say it is a way to offer nutritional consistency for families that may struggle to put a well-balanced meal on the table.
"This is really yummy," incoming second-grader Wendy Garcia of Rohnert Park said as she ate her lasagna, apple and Cobb salad at Alicia Park this week.
Daniel Roncancio said the program is "extremely helpful" to his family's bottom line.